Packed with high-rise hotels, souvenir shops, and restaurants, the strip of land bordering Waikiki Beach is a colorful, bustling mecca for tourists from all over the world. More often than not, the two miles of Waikiki Beach are elbow-to-elbow with people--but for most visitors that's half the fun.
This area is not all beach and tourist traps, however; if you've had enough of the sun and surf for a while, visit some of Waikiki's other attractions: For example, children are wild about the Honolulu Zoo, and the oceanfront Waikiki Aquarium offers a great way to view Hawaii's marine life. If you don't have time to visit the other Hawaiian islands, the 414-seat Imax Theater Waikiki can simulate the experience. Several times a day the theater shows the spectacular footage of the film "Hidden Hawaii" on a screen that's five stories high.
This enormous rock overlooking Waikiki Beach is one of Honolulu's most famous landmarks. It takes about 45 minutes to get to the top and, though the trek up the partly paved, partly staircased trail is popular with all ages, bear in mind that it is not an easy hike and even the athletic get a little winded. Bring liquids with you to drink. Once at the top, you'll see great views of Honolulu, the ocean, and the rest of the island.
The heart of Honolulu is a fascinating place, and visitors anxious to escape tourist-packed Waikiki often head inland for a taste of the real Hawaii. The 184-foot Aloha Tower Marketplace is a good place to start; the bustling center has shops, restaurants, and live musical and dance performances. Also be sure to check out Honolulu's Chinatown, one of the oldest Chinese communities in the U.S. Here, open-air marketplaces, traditional herb shops, historic temples, elegant restaurants, and fast-food noodle joints all compete for attention.
For a bit of history, proceed to the Iolani Palace, where the legacy of Hawaii's King David Kalakaua lives on. The only royal palace in the U.S., the stately structure was completed in 1882 for the royal sum of $350,000. Be sure also to pay a visit to the Mission Houses Museum, whose buildings dating to 1821 hearken back to the days when the first mainlanders arrived on Oahu's shores. Among other missionary-related paraphernalia, the museum has a Hawaiian translation of the Bible, schoolbooks, and hymnals.
The site of the December 7, 1941 bombing that pushed the U.S. into World War II, Pearl Harbor holds great significance for many Americans. The harbor's Arizona Memorial is a moving tribute to those who died in service during the bombing. Sagging in the middle to symbolize initial defeat and slanting up at the ends to represent the Allied forces' ultimate victory, the memorial is a stark, white 184-foot long bridge built right on top of the sunken hull of the USS Arizona.
A museum inside the memorial relates the story of the bombing and the U.S.'s involvement in the war. Just adjacent is the USS Bowfin Submarine and Museum. Built inside a submarine actually used in the war, the museum offers visitors a perspective on what life must have been like for the servicepeople who spent months undersea. Try to arrive at both sites early to avoid a long wait.
Hanauma Bay Beach Park
Snorkelers flock to this calm, horseshoe-shaped beach on the island's southeastern shore, where tame fish, accustomed to the presence of humans, literally eat out of snorkelers' hands. Snorkeling equipment can be rented on the beach, and the palm-shaded sandy cove is a pleasant place to spend the day.
Sea Life Park
An hour's drive up Oahu's east coast from Honolulu, Sea Life Park is a popular attraction for day visitors. The marine theme park has dolphin shows, marine exhibits, and a penguin habitat. The enormous Hawaiian Reef Exhibit is an exact recreation of underwater Oahu.
Polynesian Cultural Center
This 42-acre center recreates the cultures and settings of seven Polynesian
island nations: Hawaii, Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand, the Marquesas, and
Samoa. Visitors learn about the history of these cultures by hearing stories
and songs and watching dances and films in an onsite IMAX theater. Especially popular with youngsters are the hands-on opportunities for discovery, in the form of weaving palm-leaf hats, pounding taro roots for poi, and dancing the hula. A day at the center normally finishes off with a glittering revue and a luau featuring a whole roasted pig. This attraction is definitely on Oahu's beaten track, but it's a good deal of fun nonetheless.
Many locals use this road to commute to Honolulu from Dailua on the Windward Coast, and have grown accustomed to the breathtaking views from the mountainside. For first-time visitors however, the experience of driving the highway is awe inspiring. Pali Highway is a historic thoroughfare: the original foot path was widened into a horse trail in 1845, and has since become a modern four-lane highway. The road cuts through the verdant Koolau mountain range, and, after a rain storm, streams of water flow right over the road, creating impromptu waterfalls.
Just off the road is Queen Emma Summer Palace, now a museum run by the Daughters of Hawaii and housing beautiful furniture and clothes collected by the wife of Kamehameha IV in the mid 1800s. The Nuuanu Pali Lookout, the site of Kamehameha the Great's conquest of Oahu and its original inhabitants, is another must-see. From a height of 1200 feet, you will get a magnificent, windswept view of Oahu's stunning Windward region.
Oahu's eastern coast is located about 10 miles from Honolulu, and is home to two major towns, Kailua and Kaneohe, both predominantly populated by locals. The beaches in this area are far less crowded than those near Honolulu, and the northeast trade winds make the waters especially popular among windsurfers and sailors. Kailua Bay is arguably Oahu's top windsurfing spot. Sights in the vicinity of Kaneohe include the 400-acre Hoomaluhia Park, Hawaii's largest botanical garden.
The beautiful Valley of the Temples and Byodo-In includes a cemetery set in the splendid natural terrain, and just adjacent, the Byodo-In, also known as the Temple of Equality. The temple is a replica of a 900-year-old site in Uji, Japan. The peaceful structure sits right up against the mountain, its striking crimson roof creating a stirring contrast with the hill's cool green hues. While at the Windward Coast, you might also take a look at Coconut Island, a tiny island right off the coast that was used in the opening shots of the hit TV series "Gilligan's Island."
Home to the famous Pipeline and Banzai Beaches, this two-mile stretch of sand on Oahu's north shore inspires awe in surfers of all abilities. While the waves can be calm and inviting during the summertime, during wintertime the waters are virtually littered with top-level surfers showing off their stuff in breakers that can reach up to 35 feet.
Waimea Bay is one of the north shore's other famous surfing sites, and the largest waves ever recorded in competition were ridden here. Across the highway, Waimea Falls Park is a gorgeous reserve where Hawaiian culture thrives. Hula dances, Hawaiian games, and other traditional demonstrations are staged here, and five times a day cliff divers gracefully plunge over a 60-foot waterfall into the pool below.
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